The childhood saying "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt me," may have been wrong after all according to a new study that finds adults bullied as children carry the scars of their experience within them for decades.
Results of a large study of bullied children show that victims of bullying are more likely to develop anxiety disorders, depression, or think about suicide as adults compared with those who weren't bullied, medscape writes.
"Bullying, which we tend to think of as a normal and not terribly important part of childhood, turns out to have the potential for very serious consequences for children, adolescents, and adults," senior study author E. Jane Costello, PhD, said in a statement to medscape.
"We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person's long-term functioning," said William E. Copeland, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center.
“The pattern we are seeing is similar to patterns we see when a child is abused or maltreated or treated very harshly within the family setting,” Copeland told the New York Times.
Inside the study
To see the long-term effects of bullying, the new study, published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday, followed children who took part in the Great Smoky Mountain Study, which included data on 1420 children aged 9, 11, and 13 years from 11 counties in western North Carolina.
Participants were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies who also were victims, and children who were not exposed to bullying at all, the New York Times writes.
Enrolled in the study in 1993, researchers asked both the children and their parents or caregivers if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the three months before each assessment. They were interviewed annually until the children turned 16 and then periodically thereafter.
Years later, when those in the study were young adults — 19, 21 and between 24 and 26 — researchers interviewed more than 1,200 of them to ask about their psychological health.
Researchers found that victims of bullying in childhood were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults, compared to those with no history of bullying or being bullied.
They also found that those who were both bullies and victims of bullying had, in addition to depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia, which is anxiety about feeling trapped in a place, the highest levels of suicidal thoughts.
According to U.S.News & World Report, bullies were at risk for antisocial personality disorder only, which the U.S. National Library of Medicine defines as an ongoing pattern of "manipulating, exploiting or violating the rights of others."
To be sure their findings were confined to bullying, U.S.News & World Report writes, the researchers accounted for other factors such as poverty, abuse and an unstable or dysfunctional home life, which might have contributed to psychological problems.
One limitation of the study is that it only addressed bullying at school, not in other settings. In other words, it's not clear whether bullying at home by parents or siblings or bullying in the community has the same impact into adulthood, MedPage Today reported.
"Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up," Copeland's group wrote. "These problems are associated with great emotional and financial costs to society."
What can be done?
Copeland believes the solution is clear, U.S.News & World Report writes.
"If we could set up a culture in schools where this isn't allowed to happen, then, I think, there are a lot of these problems we can avoid," he said.
"This psychological damage doesn't just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied. This is something that stays with them," he added.
The investigators urge health professionals and school personnel to screen for bullying and to act when necessary.
They add that there are effective interventions available that reduce victimization.
"Such interventions are likely to reduce human suffering and long-term health costs and provide a safer environment for children to grow up in," the authors write.